Blog (September 2015)
Commentary from Cindy Zeldin, Georgians for a Healthy Future’s Executive Director
The nation’s uninsured rate has plummeted over the past year and a half. Here in Georgia, more than 400,000 people have enrolled in health insurance, bringing our state’s uninsured rate down to 15 percent. While there is still much work to be done to ensure that all Georgians have a pathway to coverage (like expanding Medicaid), it’s also important to make sure that those who are newly covered are able to access needed health care services.
Are newly insured Georgians accessing the care they need? For the most part, the answer seems to be yes. The early evidence shows that most people who signed up for health insurance have been able to find a doctor with relative ease and get an appointment for primary care within a week or two.
This is a development worth celebrating, but there are also some warning signs on the horizon that policymakers should heed: according to a recent study by the University of Pennsylvania, Georgia had the highest percentage of health plans utilizing “narrow networks” of providers. In addition, reports of provider directory inaccuracies and networks too skinny to deliver all of the services in a plan’s benefit package have started to emerge.
Narrow networks offer a limited choice of providers in exchange for a lower premium. While many Georgians are willing to make this trade-off, others need a broader network to meet their health needs. And everyone deserves the tools and information to make that choice and to know that they can access services for all covered benefits.
Health care consumers now have access to standardized information about premiums, benefits, deductibles, and other health plan features that make it easier to pick the right plan. Yet provider network size and composition remain a black box for consumers, holding them back from making the best, most informed decision they can. Combined with a rapid trend toward narrow networks, this could put some consumers at risk of not being able to access all of the providers and services they need (or at risk for high medical bills if they have to go out-of-network).
These trends are being examined as part of the Senate Study Committee on the Consumer and Provider Protection Act (SR 561). I was honored to be appointed to this committee to represent Georgians for a Healthy Future and to bring the consumer perspective to the committee. The committee’s third meeting, slated for the morning of November 9th at the State Capitol, will focus on network adequacy, or whether there are adequate standards in place to ensure that consumers enrolled in a health plan have reasonable access to all covered services in the plan.
As a committee member, it is my goal to make sure the voices and needs of consumers are heard and considered. It is becoming clear that consumers don’t yet have 1) access to all of the information they need to select a health plan that best meets their needs and 2) protections that ensure their health plan will provide timely and meaningful access to all covered services. Fortunately, these are problems we can address.
I will be supporting enhancements to provider directories that give consumers the information they need and deserve (such as enhanced search functionality and a simple way to report inaccuracies) as well as network adequacy standards for Georgia that ensure no insured Georgian has to travel an unreasonably long distance or wait an excessive amount of time to access the care they need. I’ve also learned a great deal about this issue by watching the National Association of Insurance Commissioner’s work in this area, and was happy to sign on in support of the policy recommendations around network adequacy that the NAIC’s consumer representatives issued last year.
I am excited about this opportunity to make our health system work better, and GHF will keep you posted on new developments. If you’re interested in providing testimony to the committee, please let us know and we can forward your request to Senator Burke, who chairs the study committee.
Georgians for a Healthy Future and the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute are proud to release our joint publication: Understanding Medicaid in Georgia and the Opportunity to Improve It. Inside you will find infographics, new data, and compelling charts that simplify the complex issue of Medicaid in Georgia.
Part one explains who gets Medicaid in Georgia, how Medicaid protects Georgians during economic downturns, how Medicaid controls costs in the state, and more.
Part two outlines Georgia’s opportunity to close the coverage gap. Here you’ll find out what Georgia’s health insurance coverage gap is, how we can use Medicaid to close it, and who stands to benefit detailed by job sector, demographics, and veteran status.
Part three details economic and social benefits of closing the coverage gap. Why is closing the coverage gap a good deal for Georgia and the state’s economy? What are the savings other states realize by closing the gap? How does coverage affect a person’s financial and physical health?
Download the chart book here.
Do you or does your organization work directly with consumers to help get them covered? Do people in your community come to you with questions about how to make sense of their health insurance? If so, GEAR is for you! Please join us for a webinar to introduce the new Georgia Enrollment Assistance Resource Network — GEAR! GEAR is the new central hub of resources for Georgia’s enrollment assisters and stakeholders who work to educate people on their health and health coverage options. GEAR is full of handouts, interactive consumer tools, important updates, and other materials that will help enrollment assisters and community organizations better educate Georgians on health insurance enrollment, health insurance literacy, and more.
Want to learn more about GEAR and how you and/or your organization can benefit? Join us on October 19th for a webinar where we will demonstrate how to access GEAR and review some of the materials that can be found there. We will also get your feedback about other resources you would like to see included on GEAR in the future. GEAR is built to help more Georgians connect to health coverage and we want it to work for you!
You can register for the October 19th GEAR webinar here.
At Georgians for a Healthy Future, we pride ourselves on strong partnerships. Over the past few years, we have been collaborating with Georgia Equality and the Health Initiative to ensure that the health care needs of LGBT Georgians are not neglected.
These partnerships brought Whitney Griggs, GHF’s Consumer Education Specialist, to Savannah on September 12th for the annual Savannah Pride Festival. Together with the Health Initiative, Whitney distributed information related to LGBT health care needs and spoke to festival attendees about how to enroll in health insurance. Of particular interest was our joint fact sheet with Georgia Equality on Transgender Health Care. Some of the festival attendees who picked up this fact sheet shared stories of having been denied coverage due to being trans-identified in the past, but who can now get coverage that meets their needs because of the Affordable Care Act. People that stopped by the table were also interested to learn that health care services must be provided regardless of gender identity or expression. This means that health insurance plans must cover transition-related care, as long as that care is covered for cisgendered people under on the same plan. So services such as hormone replacement therapy and gender-specific care (like mammograms and prostate exams) must be covered if they are covered for other people enrolled in the same plan.
Whitney also gave out some tips for trans-identified folks to keep in mind when enrolling in health insurance:
- On all enrollment forms, check the sex box that matches the sex you believe is on file with the Social Security Administration.
- Some important questions to ask include:
- Is hormone replacement therapy covered?
- Is my doctor included in the plan’s network?
- Is there a network of trans-friendly doctors and/or doctors who have training working with or currently serve trans clients?
- Are reconstructive surgeries covered?
All in all, it was great day in Savannah (despite the rain) and people learned a lot from GHF and the Health Initiative.
If you have a specific question about LGBT health care and health insurance, feel free to reach out to Whitney Griggs at firstname.lastname@example.org or the Health Initiative at (404) 688-2524
The pre-game to the 2016 Georgia legislative session kicked off with the convening of House and Senate study committees last week. Study committees meet during the off-session to take a deeper dive into specific policy issues that may arise when the session gets underway. Each committee will produce a report on its findings and recommendations by the end of the year and potentially introduce legislation during the 2016 session. Click here for a complete listing of House and Senate study committees.
GHF is following and participating in health-related study committees that directly impact consumers. Here’s what you need to know.
Senate Study Committee on the Consumer and Provider Protection Act (SR 561)
In light of changing practices and norms in the insurance market Senate Bill 158 the Consumer and Provider Protection Act was introduced in 2015. This bill outlined provisions for consumer and provider protections regarding health insurance and created the Senate Study Committee on the Consumer and Provider Protection Act. The aim of this committee is to understand how the current insurance environment is affecting the stability of providers and consumers’ access to care. The committee consists of legislators and representatives from the provider, insurer, and consumer communities, including GHF’s Executive Director Cindy Zeldin as the consumer representative. The committee plans to examine the operations of rental networks, contractual issues between insurers and providers, and network adequacy.
The first meeting of this committee was held on September 14th at the State Capitol and focused on “rental networks,” also known as silent PPOs. The committee heard testimony from physician and insurer groups as well as from the Department of Insurance. Rental networks occur when third-party entities “rent out” physician-insurer negotiated rates to other payers. The second study committee meeting is scheduled for October 26th at Tift Regional Health System in Tifton and will focus on “all-products clauses” and provider stability issues. The committee will then be back at the State Capitol on November 9th for a meeting focusing on network adequacy and provider directories.
Georgians for a Healthy Future has identified network adequacy and the need for more accurate and user-friendly provider directories as important, emerging consumer issues. Network adequacy refers to a health plan’s ability to deliver the benefits promised by providing reasonable access to a sufficient number of in-network primary care and specialty physicians, as well as all and other health care services an insurer guarantees to provide. GHF will present recommendations on meaningful standards to measure and ensure that provider networks are adequate, as well as how to design provider directories effectively for consumer use. If you are interested in providing testimony or input to this committee, please contact Senator Burke, the study committee chair. Please also let GHF know if these issues have emerged for communities or populations you serve so we can provide the strongest and most informed consumer voice we can on the committee.
Senate Study Committee on Youth Mental Health Substance Use Disorders (SR 487)
The first meeting of the Senate Study Committee on Youth Mental Health Substance Use Disorders convened last week at the State Capitol. The committee is charged with examining prevention strategies and identifying promising approaches to address youth Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Substance Use Disorders (SUD). The first meeting included overview presentations from representatives of the Department of Education, Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, and Georgia Council on Substance Abuse (GCSA). The next meeting on October 7th will focus on ADHD and the meeting following that, on October 22nd, will delve into substance use disorders. Georgians for a Healthy Future has been working over the past two years with the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse to raise awareness about the promise of taking a public health approach to substance use disorders that focuses on prevention. We are teaming up with GCSA to host a lunch-time policy forum and discussion on this approach on October 22nd at the Loudermilk Center prior to the study committee’s meeting later that afternoon. Please save the date and we’ll send more details soon. If you are interested in testifying at the October 22nd study committee meeting to talk about prevention, please let Senator Unterman’s office know (you can also reach out to GHF and we can try to pass along your request).
Senate Study Committee on Women’s Adequate Healthcare (SR 560)
The Senate Study Committee on Women’s Adequate Healthcare met to discuss the current condition of women’s healthcare in Georgia, areas with existing deficits, and the growing number of women who are at risk of unhealthy outcomes. The Department of Public Health, Department of Human Services and Georgia Obstetrical and Gynecology Society presented data and information on areas in which women’s health is in high risk, and policy options to move the needle in the right direction on major health indicators. The next meeting will be health on October 6, 2015, from 9am- 2pm, at Georgia Regents University in Augusta.
House Study Committee on School Based Health Centers (HR 640)
Committee members for the House Study Committee on School Based Health Centers met to explore the associations between health and education and ways in which school based health centers can be leveraged to increase access, provide affordable care, and produce cost savings. The committee heard from Voices for Georgia’s Children, the Partnership for Equity and Child Mental Health, and the Global Partnership for Telehealth on the details of the relationship between health and education outcomes. The committee tentatively scheduled the next meeting for September 29th and two additional meetings to follow.
We (Consumer Education Specialist, Whitney Griggs, and Community Outreach Manager, Laura Colbert) made the drive to Augusta this week to check in with health care stakeholders and consumers in the northeast Georgia city. We were warmly welcomed by community partners and are excited to return for next week’s community forum Coverage and Access to Care: A Local Focus on Augusta.
Our primary purpose for the trip was to attend the Greater Augusta Health Network’s (GAHN) fall forum. The forum covered a variety of topics, including how the local District 13 Department of Public Health provides much needed direct patient services to people in its service areas, GAHN’s on-going health care utilization data collection efforts, and the Affordable Care Act’s effect on small employers (51 to 99 employees).
The forum closed with a discussion panel of indigent care providers, including Medical Associates Plus, St. Vincent de Paul health clinic, and Christ Community Health Services. These providers described their determined efforts to provide care for Augustans who cannot afford health insurance or pay for their health care. Mentioned by all three panelists was the need to close Georgia’s coverage gap. Every day each clinic serves people who need health care coverage, like veterans who can’t get are at the VA. The clinics are able to do this work only because of generous donations and profits from a few insured patients. While these charity care clinics are doing amazing work, they say that they cannot provide all the care that is needed for Augustans in the coverage gap. Each of the panelists made the case that closing the coverage gap would be great for their patients and clients, and for their clinics.
Christ Community Health Services generously hosted us in the afternoon, so we could talk to their patients about why closing the coverage gap is important to them. One of the patients they talked to was Tracy. Tracy has chronic pain in her back, and is managing anxiety and depression brought on by her back pain. Her pain makes it impossible for her to sit at a computer to do her graphic design work, which means she has no income and no health care coverage. Tracy is stuck in the coverage gap. Her mother, Maria, pays what she can for Tracy’s care and drives her to and from appointments. Tracy told us that she isn’t asking for a hand-out, she “just wants the public benefits that I paid into when I was working.”
It was clear from our visit that closing the coverage gap is an important issue to health care stakeholders and consumers in Augusta. To learn more about the coverage gap in Augusta and in Georgia, join us for a community forum next Thursday, September 24th.
You’re invited to a panel discussion about the state of health care in Augusta and across Georgia. Local stakeholders and community leaders will discuss the current state of health insurance coverage and access to care, present regional and state data on Medicaid and the uninsured, and discuss opportunities to work together to improve coverage and access to care through direct collaboration and through policy change. We will place a special focus on Georgia’s coverage gap and lessons learned from other states that have reduced their uninsured rates by expanding Medicaid or through alternative approaches, such as a waiver. The event will take place at the Augusta Richmond County Public Library on Thursday, Sept. 24th, 9 to 11 am. Coffee and a light breakfast will be served. This event is free, but we ask that you please register so we can get an accurate head count.
Dr. Jacqueline Fincher, MD, MACP
Board of Regents | American College of Physicians | Managing Partner, McDuffie Medical Associates
A representative from Christ Community Health Services
Tim Sweeney, Deputy Director of Policy Georgia Budget and Policy Institute
Dr. Bill Custer, Director of Center for Health Services Research
Click here to register for the event.
This column was authored by Cindy Zeldin, Georgians for a Healthy Future’s Executive Director, and originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on September 28th, 2015.
Earlier this month, the Georgia Department of Community Health announced that it had abandoned plans — at least for now — to seek flexibility in Georgia’s Medicaid program to allow for expanded coverage and an innovative delivery-of-care model for the patient populations served by Grady Health System in Atlanta and Memorial Health in Savannah.
While this pilot program would have been fairly limited, it was designed with the changing health care landscape in mind and in the spirit of making the health system work better for patients. The proposal relied on an integrated care model with primary care medical homes, care coordination, data sharing and a focus on prevention. The costs to the state would have been nominal — negligible, even — as Grady offered to foot the bill. That this effort is not moving forward is a disappointment, but it should not be a conversation-ender.
For years, the nation’s uninsured rate appeared stuck at a stubbornly high level. This had implications for individuals and families who couldn’t access the care they needed, for communities and health systems that experienced spillover effects, and for overall health and productivity. Over the past year and a half, the tide has turned. The uninsured rate has steadily declined, and in some states it has plummeted to less than 5 percent.
It is a time of tremendous change in health care, yet this change is being felt unevenly. According to a recent Gallup-Healthways survey, states that both established their own health exchange (or a partnership exchange) and expanded Medicaid saw greater declines in their uninsured rates than states that did neither. States that viewed the changing health care landscape as an opportunity, and the Affordable Care Act as a toolbox, to improve coverage saw far better results than those who did not.
Many states taking this “opportunity and toolbox” approach are now building on the foundation of high coverage rates to invest in prevention, improve access to care and enhance value for consumers, often in collaboration with local health care stakeholders.
Kentucky, for example, has reduced its uninsured rate from over 20 percent to 9 percent since 2013. Combined with an intentional focus on prevention, this has translated to a more-than doubling of the number of screenings for breast, cervical and colon cancer and of dental and physical exams. Other states like Oregon are developing initiatives to contain costs, improve quality and achieve better price transparency for consumers.
Of course, not every promising initiative will be a smashing success, but the pace of innovation and advancement is historic for American health policy. Here in Georgia, approximately 500,000 people enrolled in coverage through the Health Insurance Marketplace, an exciting development that has helped bring our state’s uninsured rate down to just above 15 percent. In normal times, with all else being equal, this would be extraordinary.
And while this achievement is transformative for the people and communities impacted, these are not normal times for the health system. Georgia’s uninsured rate remains among the nation’s highest, and our health outcomes, among the nation’s poorest. Without a more deliberate focus on coverage, access, value and outcomes, Georgia risks falling further behind other parts of the country. We cannot continue to do less with less.
The demise of the Grady experiment, while a disappointment, should be a conversation starter about moving Georgia towards an “opportunity and toolbox” mindset. To date, our state has stayed on the sidelines while others have moved forward, but we don’t have to remain there.
The evidence is beginning to pour in from around the country, and we can take the most promising initiatives out there and use them to inform a uniquely Georgia approach. The clearest evidence we have shows us the decision by the majority of states (30 and counting) to expand Medicaid is foundational in transforming the health system. The Grady initiative, while not Medicaid expansion, was at its heart a delivery system reform that was predicated on moving its target population into coverage as a first and necessary step.
We cannot make progress as a state if 15 percent of our population is uninsured. Too many Georgians fall into a coverage gap our leaders can fix. Medicaid expansion should be on the table, not as a perfect solution, but as a necessary first step.
During the 2015 Legislative Session, the State Senate established the Consumer and Provider Protection Act Study Committee. This committee will review and make recommendations around several health insurance practices, including network adequacy. GHF has identified network adequacy, or the sufficiency of the health care providers patients can access when they enroll in a health insurance plan, as an important emerging consumer health issue. Our Executive Director, Cindy Zeldin, is a member of the study committee and looks forward to bringing the consumer perspective to the committee’s work. Cindy also recently appeared on WABE and Top Docs Radio to talk about network adequacy and participated in a panel discussion along with several state legislators at the Medical Association of Georgia’s Summer Legislative Education Seminar to discuss this important issue. Stay tuned for study committee agendas, updates, and opportunities to weigh in!
Study Committee Schedule:
September 14, 9:00 – 12:00
State Capitol, Room 450
October 26, 2:00 – 5:00
Tift Regional Healthy System, Tifton
November 9, 9:00 – 12:00